Every accusation imaginable has been thrown at Saudi women who spoke up for their right to drive their own cars. Sheikhs and ultra conservatives have created this intricate conspiracy theory on how this whole demand is a well-planned Iranian/Shia plight to bring down the government by corrupting it’s women. Others have claimed that it is a Western conspiracy because somehow the Christian/Jewish West know deep down that Islam is the right path but they need to corrupt Muslim women through using their own women as an example. According to their logic, somehow women driving cars will lead to the fall of Islam. Confusing, I know, but nevertheless quite emotional and effective when presented in a religious context of salvation and preserving our faith and morals in an evil world. Another issue that they have is a “gotcha” argument where they say if women really wanted to drive for the good of the country and independence then they would first have to prove it by giving up their maids. As if maids were a requirement and by law, Saudi women are banned from doing their own housework as they are from driving their cars?! Choice and freedom are two words that are not in the opposition’s vocabulary.
That was all expected, it’s the same rhetoric that is employed by the extreme right in opposing anything they don’t like. However what was surprising is that quite a few Saudis who are progressive and some activists as well are against the women driving campaign. Some have taken it as a matter of pride, that the women joining the campaign are exposing the country to international ridicule. Some are cynical about why Western media has given this issue so much attention. They say it’s just an oriental stereotype that these outlets are abusing for their own amusement. Such a clear black and white case of gender discrimination in the 21st century is really not worthy of anyone’s attention. And that a government would arrest women simply for driving a car is a “stereotype” and not actual incidents happening nationwide. Then they question why western media doesn’t consult Saudis on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict or why they don’t cover this or that.
They also are upset at Saudi women who have had to resort to Western media to present their case, instead of being upset at local media for not giving these women a platform. The day after June 17, our newspapers completely ignored the issue except for one report in one paper, Okaz, where the traffic police denied that there were any cases of women driving. This was despite the fact that traffic police issued a ticket to a woman, Maha Al Qahtani, for driving without a Saudi license on the very same day they claimed that there were no women drivers.
These same progressives and activists claim that the women driving their cars are going about it the wrong way and that they should go through official channels. It has obviously slipped their minds that Wajeha Al Huwaider and Ebtihal Mubarak had delivered a petition to the Royal Court to lift the ban signed by over 3000 Saudis. They also must have forgotten when Dr. Mohmammed Zalfa during his time on the Shura Council (closest thing to parliament in Saudi) presented a proposal to lift the ban in 2006 and received a huge social and professional backlash in return. Also Abdullah Al Alami, a journalist and activist has been trying for the past year to get the Shura Council to revisit the issue with no success. It’s very obvious that the official track is pretty worn out. Although we have still not lost hope and are persevering in its pursuit.
One example of such progressives is Tareq Al Homayed, who claimed in an article published on June 27 and translated to English the next day is that the Western media is out of touch. And that they have been following misinformed social media hype. He claims that the women who drove on June 17th and after are fewer than those who protested the ban in 1990. When actually the 1990 protest was only fourteen cars that had 47 passengers, while from June 17th and onwards there have been about seventy documented cases of women driving. He also claimed that this issue was politicized by the campaign when in actuality the politicization of this basic right was by the extreme right with their accusations from decades ago until today that this is a foreign conspiracy and that women who call for this right are traitors. Finally he claims that the low number of women driving is a reflection of the campaign’s low priority for Saudi women. As if he wasn’t Saudi and does not understand how paralyzed with fear people are here when it comes to any form of public demonstrations. For example we have thousands of political prisoners who are in prison indefinitely and without trial and yet at its height of the protest only 200 of their loved ones stood in front of the interior ministry to demand their release.
In an interview on a weekly discussion show, Suad Al Shammari, a leading Saudi women rights activist presented the following statistics: only 45000 Saudi women have licenses which they can only acquire from abroad, 40% of cars purchased in Saudi are purchased by women and that there are currently over a million and two hundred thousand foreign men brought into this country for the sole purpose of driving our cars instead of the women owners. FYI the Saudi population is 27,140,000 a third of which are foreign workers.
You would think that it’s a reflection of our wealth while in reality, 70% of Saudi do not have the financial resources to buy their own homes. The unemployment rate for women is over 28%, the majority of those unemployed women have graduate degrees. The unemployment rate for men too is high with two million registering for unemployment benefits. So essentially many of these foreign drivers are here only due to the ban rather than the “luxurious Saudi lifestyle”.
The low number of women driving their cars is not due to the low number of women who care. The overwhelming majority of women do not know how to drive since Saudi driving schools ban women students and just practicing with your father or brother might end up with both of you with a criminal record. The low number is also because Saudi society shames women who publicly speak out against anything. As one Saudi woman who desperately needs to drive told me: “I will put up with importing a driver and a salary I can’t afford to pay, because otherwise my family would estrange me and people would drag my name in the mud.”
The veil behind the wheel: Reuters report on being in the car with a woman activist who happens to be of a conservative Bedouin background.
An Arabic statement released today by Shiekh Abdullah Al Mutlaq, a member of the highest religious council in Saudi Arabia where he states that women driving is allowed in Islam however he likens it to allowing weapon trade which is also allowed in Islam but would have dangerous consequences on the security of the country and safety of society.
Another member of the highest religious council, Shiekh Qays Al Mubarak, surprisingly is being quite outspoken in this Arabic piece in the call for lifting the ban on women driving.